What was it like in the First World War?
Victor Harvey Smith, Norman Roderick Smith and Neil Harvey Smith were three brothers who served in the first world war. Their letters home were saved, and have been published by my father on the War Letters site. I’ve previously written a summary of their war experiences and in this article I write about what their letters revealed to me about the war and war-life.
I never knew my paternal grandfather, and it wasn’t until I was an adult that I came to know he had been a soldier in the first world war. While I was travelling around Europe Dad suggested I stop off at Messines in Belgium, which he had told me was close to where his father had been injured in the war. We found the “Rue des Neo Zelandais” there, and the New Zealand memorial to the New Zealand soldiers whose “graves are known only to God”. We also visited Ypres (Ieper) and the excellent “In Flanders Fields” museum. This gave a real human face to the war, vividly illustrating the conditions the soldiers faced. This piqued my interest about what my own grandfather’s experiences might have been.
Some years later that Dad pulled out a pile of letters and a diary which had been written by his father Vic, and Vic’s brothers Norman and Neil. Although I was interested in reading them, one look at the old-fashioned handwriting and I knew it was going to take some deciphering. Luckily for me Dad decided to embark upon a project to transcribe all the letters and publish them on a web site, and one ANZAC Day, in the spirit of remembrance, I got around to reading them. I went into them with the expectation that it would be a task to be endured rather than savoured. I expected that they were mostly about pretty mundane things and contain staid, old fashioned language and attitudes. In fact I found that they gave a fascinating glimpse into the lives and personalities of these three men. Out of the context of yellowing paper and curly writing they were very readable, and I quickly found myself drawn into their experiences.
They didn’t see much of the front-line action – and what they did experience isn’t described very graphically. They would have been mindful of censorship and concerned about worrying and frightening those back home, so focused on more positive aspects. While it was a little disappointing to not hear some of the grittier aspects of what they experienced, the realities of their every day life as soldiers in the war proved just as fascinating.
Hearing from Home
Getting letters with news from home is obviously a highlight for these soldiers, but the communications were often fraught with frustration. Most of the letters took months to arrive, and often came out of order. Some didn’t arrive at all. In today’s world of immediate and reliable communication I can only imagine what it would be like to write a reply to a letter that you knew someone had written two months ago, knowing that they would probably not read it for another two months and there was a real possibility it would never be read at all! Vic sums it up well when he writes:
“There is a lot of internal trouble in all countries just now, but that will be stale news by the time you get this.”
Even apart from the distance and necessary slowness of the letters’ transport, the soldiers’ positions were hard to keep track of – especially when they were separated from their units by injury or sickness. Vic was good at recording the details of the dates of the letters he had received, giving us a good idea of how long the letters took to reach him. The average time seems to be about 6 weeks – though some made it in less than 4, and others took more than 3 months. This letter was written by Norman on the 18th of August 1917:
“Dear Dad, I received your letter dated May 2nd No 4. just after posting one to Mum this morning. Yours has been a very long time on the way and I am sending the envelope back to show how it has followed me round.”
It must have been nerve wracking for those at home to know that the news they were receiving of the welfare of the soldiers was several months out of date. Reports of hospitalisation were cabled directly to the families – meaning they would hear news about them being reported wounded or sick a long time before the men themselves could give their own reports of their health. When Vic was wounded in France in July 1917, his parents had been sent a cable reporting him to be in a severe condition. Knowing the two other brothers to be in London at the time, they sent a cable asking them to immediately report back with details of his condition. Cables were expected to be received within a day or so, so they would have been expecting a quick reply. Unfortunately the cable didn’t find Norman until October. Norman would have felt awful knowing how his parents had been worried about Vic, and he went to some extent to explain the mix up to them. He writes:
“I was pretty wild when I found that it was about five weeks late owing to someones carelessness. We did not cable directly we heard about Vic for several reasons. We knew nothing of his real condition until we had a letter from Vic himself about 21 Aug stating that he had been only slightly wounded. It was then six weeks from the date of his wound and we considered that during that time you would have been sure to have received a hospital report stating his condition. Vic did not say in his letter whether he had cabled himself and we did not know until we saw him on Sept 6th that he had not done so owing to his being rather afraid of giving Mum a shock by cabling. Not even Vic knew that he had been wrongly reported “severely” wounded until we received your letter about a fortnight ago and Vic said that it would be ridiculous to cable then as his first letter would have reached you weeks before. It has been a horrible bungle from the first and the people most to blame are those on the staff at sling and at Records, London. “
Meanwhile Vic had been comfortably recuperating in an English hospital while his parents endured several months worrying about the seriousness of his wounds. Even letters between the soldiers themselves were delayed or misdirected, meaning they were often completely in the dark about their brothers’ whereabouts or welfare. This letter from Vic shows he was conscious that he hadn’t heard from Norman for a while, though optimistic (at least for the purposes of a letter to his parents):
“Norman’s letters must be going astray somehow, unless he has not time to write, because I have not heard from him yet. Letters from the line are often delayed a great deal, and I am expecting to hear from him any time now. “
Though they were well aware of the problems of misdirected correspondence, it must have been worrying when an expected letter didn’t arrive. On finally receiving a letter from Norman, Neil writes:
“I was glad to get a letter from him as I had been getting rather uneasy, since neither Vic nor I had had any word from him for six weeks.”
Receiving parcels from home was especially welcomed by the soldiers. These usually contained cakes, biscuits and other things that were scarce in England like sugar. These quotes from Norman show how appreciated they were.
“I got a tin of loaf sugar from you last week and a parcel from Mrs Barton at Fielding. You will be tired of being thanked for parcels by this time but you know how welcome they are.”
“Two parcels arrived from home four days ago – one tin of biscuits from you and a loaf tin of sugar from Mum. Both were in splendid condition. The biscuits were all whole and were as crisp as the day they were packed. It is some time now since we were able to buy little luxuries in the way of sweets and biscuits so you can guess how I went for those biscuits and the sugar.”
“The biscuits have just come through the post and they are simply lovely. They are as fresh and crisp as if they had just been packed and every one who has tried them has remarked how splendidly they have kept. I am afraid they will spoil my taste for the biscuits we get over here for a while. “
The cakes generally reached them in edible condition – though not always: From Neil:
“Trots cake was all right, but mine was rather severely gassed. We ate the part with only white mould on it but we could only eat the raisins of the part where the mould had gone blue. We did not get peritonitus or anything and the mould did not affect the taste at all, so that on the whole the cake was about A2 – fit for partial active service. It was very welcome in spite of the way it had been treated en route – the tin was very badly bashed. “
“My cake was in good condition, but Neil’s tin had been bashed about a bit and the damp air had turned the contents mouldy. I hardly think it will be safe to send any more unless the lid is soldered down as a bash on the side leaves the tin gaping open at the top .”
This is obviously advice that their father took seriously, as future letter from Neil says:
“He mentions sending along some biscuits which he thinks will keep crisp (the last lot did beautifully) because Dad is soldering the tin. He always makes a thorough job of it. The only time I ever knew an army clasp knife breaking was on the solder of one of the cake tins. We get over the difficulty now by opening the tins at the bottom opposite the solder. But joking aside they need thorough soldering, the bashing about they get en route.”
The mind boggles at how cake and biscuits would be kept fresh (even in a soldered tin) on a journey by sea half way around the world. I would love to know what recipes they used, and if the biscuits were like the ANZAC biscuits we bake today. The only clue about any ingredients was written by Norman:
“The brown Betty was very good and I have been speculating as to the recipe. I bet on brown sugar and ground almonds as the first two but after that I am somewhat uncertain. It is very very nice anyway so don’t lose the recipe.”
I wonder if this family recipe is still hanging around somewhere in a file of miscellaneous papers!
The Smith family seems to have been devoted to keeping their boys well supplied with parcels – to the extent that they had to be asked to restrain themselves. Vic writes:
“Most of the parcels that come for other men are very much smaller than the ones you send and I think it would be much better if you would not send such big ones as it must be costing you a good deal. “
And 7 months later from Norman:
“I am afraid that you are over doing the parcel business. Are you sure that you can afford to keep spending as you are doing. “
It is touching to think of the family at home busy baking cakes and packing up parcels to send their boys. Even Vic got into the baking act after he arrived back in New Zealand – Norman mentions receiving a tin of biscuits from him:
“The biscuits that Vic sent arrived as crisp as possible. It is remarkable how well they keep their condition considering the time they are on their way and the treatment they receive.”
For those waiting at home feeling otherwise helpless about the fates of the soldiers this would have been a way of feeling like they were actively contributing something towards their well being.
Comforts and Discomforts
The men are generally very positive in what they report to back home. They go to pains to reassure their family that they are well taken care of. At the training hospital at Cambridge Norman says:
“As I write there is a fine, bright coal fire burning in the grate not four feet away, and I have taken my boots off and have got my feet well warmed so on the whole “Yours Truly” is fairly cozy and comfortable. I think somehow I could stand quite a lot of this. Neil is reading to-nights London “Star” and is giving me his opinion of the Russian situation and the war in general. If Mum starts worrying about us you can tell her that the chances are that we are doing nothing more desperate than washing up dishes or carting about drums of dressings or something of that sort. “
And Neil says:
” I expect you are worrying at this very moment about us living on issued rations among the snow on One Blanket Hill; whereas actually we both have the afternoon off and have just come up from a cozy billiard room where we have been playing for two hours at the rate of 1 1/2d each per hour. We eat on the average seven meals a day – tucker is very cheap at the canteen. We go to the theatre three times a week. We have four blankets, a pillow and our overcoat and a fire going in the barrack room practically day and night. Our washing is done for us free of charge. So you see at the present moment we are not deserving of any great sympathy on account of the hardships we are suffering. “
In camp in France, Norman reports:
“I am writing this in the Y.M.C.A. hut. Everywhere we go we find these comfortable little places and I can tell you that it is “some” good to drop in on a cold night and find a bright warm fire and something hot to eat and drink. Everywhere we go we find their places the same. It is impossible to speak too highly of the work they are doing to make the men’s live as comfortable as possible. Neil is sitting beside me playing chess with a cobber of his so we are feeling cheerful generally. “
Even while Norman was near the front line on water cart duty he writes about the great entertainment on offer:
“Just across the road from our camp is a theatre seating 400 where a party of “tommy” Pierrot Boys give a first class entertainment for the sum of half a franc (about 4 1/2 pence). About a mile away there is the N.Z. Div. theatre where the “kiwis” give the “Forty Thieves” pantomime every night. Of course there are no girls among the performers, but their absence is made up for by what the “Daily Mail” calls “petticoat camouflage”. Boys dress up as girls and play the parts so well that it would be hard in some cases to tell the difference between them and the real thing although their voices give some of them away. I have been to both theatres several times and I must say that I have seen far worse performances in the Auckland Theatres many a time.”
They made good time of the leave they were given while in England, both before they were sent to France, and afterwards while recuperating from injury and illness – and managed to do a fair bit of sightseeing. This passage from Vic could almost have been taken from a postcard sent from a leisure holiday, except for the jarring contrast of the last sentence:
“We have nothing to do for the first week or two and we can go to any of the towns round here within four miles, and to London on Sat and Sun. I went on Sat to London to see the opera, and had another look at St Pauls, and yesterday, we had a look at what used to be called Pettycoat Lane. This is a sort of open market. There are several streets all lined with large stalls, selling all sorts of articles. They are nearly all Russian jews and there is plenty entertainment, but not many bargains. In the afternoon we went to Hyde Park , where there are many cranks, all lecturing at once, and a famous band playing. The seats near the band are free to all men in hospital uniform. There is also a long lake called the Serpentine where you can hire boats for 1/- an hour. We came back as far as Barking on the bus and was just in time to see the finish of an air raid on Southend, where about 40 were killed and 80 injured.”
They all managed to get away for holidays to Scotland, and in his journal Vic describes his trip in detail.
“Edinburgh proved a very good place for a holiday. There was a splendid zoo there, The cable trams were very slow. The theatres were very good . Edinburgh castle was well worth visiting.”
They they had plenty of positive experiences but they tended to downplay the negative ones. This is frustrating for the modern reader who wants to know the details of what being in the war was “really” like, but it was natural for them to not want those at home to worry about them. They would also have been conscious that too much negativity may have been censored to keep up the morale of their friends and family. One of the few times we get an insight into the discomforts of army life is Norman’s description of a lice infestation in France:
“I am still keeping well and except for the “little things” I am not having such a bad time. In case you don’t know what I mean by the “little things” I will tell you that they are the creeping crawling lice which make their home in one’s woollen underwear, I have carried out several vigorous counter attacks on them with severe losses to the enemy, but their numbers don’t seem to decrease very much. Oh well! I don’t suppose that a fellow can call himself a soldier until he has been half eaten by them.”
Vic has one small complaint about ship life while traveling to England:
“The only thing we miss is the fresh water for a bath, for salt water is worse than none at all.”
He goes into more detail in his journal, where he says the fresh water was only allowed for drinking purposes – but:
“We would go to the tap with our mug for a drink of water and take it away and use it to wash in. Sometimes we would go to the tap an hour before daylight when there would be no guard there, fill a fruit tin and have a bath with it.”
Even in his personal journal, Vic doesn’t go into a lot of detail about the conditions he experienced in his short time in the trenches. He says:
“On the 8/7/17 we went into the trenches. The weather was overcast and that made it hard for the airmen to do much. That part of the line was known as the Pont-Rouge section. Part of the time was spent in carrying rations from the cookhouse along the sap to the trenches, and in the evening, in carrying dry rations from the depot to the cook house. Heavy shelling took place all the time, but it was always worse at night. Sleep was impossible owing to the noise.”
In his journal he wrote about the dietary deficiencies that he observed when recovering from his injury:
“Many men were in very poor condition owing to the severe food rationing. The right kind of foods could not be had and apples and rice diet during a very severe English winter was quite useless to men who were not used to such cold weather. No sugar or milk could be got and the apples were cooked just as they fell from the tree without being peeled or cored in any way. Sometimes enough bacon for one man would be divided among ten men. The result was that many men who may have gone to Sling as fit men, had to be rejected and sent back to New Zealand.”
One aspect of war that they did go into some details about were air raids. Neil and Norman found themselves right in the middle of one in Salisbury while they were stationed at the nearby Sling camp. Norman’s account:
“The Germans, no doubt hearing that we were in the city, sent over 20 areoplanes to try and get us with bombs but did not succeed as far as we were concerned although they managed to place four very near to the hut at which we were staying. The bombs make a bit of a fuss when they explode. In one place a great hole was torn in the roadway every window in the street was broken and several plate glass windows around a corner fully a hundred yards away. The explosion followed by the sound of falling glass etc, gives one the impression that the damage is a great deal more than what it really is and I can quite understand the nervousness of people when weather conditions are favourable for air raids. About eighty casualties resulted from the raid the night we were there.”
“We didn’t see them being in the Theatre, but at 8.30 a lot of police whizzed round the streets on motor cycles with the notice “Air Raid Expected” and later at 10.30 with the notice “Enemy craft on way”. We came out of the theatre blissfully ignorant of the fact that the Germans knew we had arrived in London and were going to have a go at us. We were staying at the Y.M.C.A. Aldwich Hut, right in the centre of London. I was in my cubicle and had just got half a puttee off when the sky pilot in his ?? service voice said along the passage “air raid Take cover in the dugout”. The old hands back from the front had seen bombs dropped before so they went into the dugout. [Vic says it is all rot about the old hands taking no notice of shells at the front. He says it is the new chumps who pretend they don’t care and stay in the trench when they hear a shell whine. The main body men have seen high explosives hit trenches before, so they dive into the dugout every time. Perhaps that is why they are still there. I suppose those early ones that did not dive don’t need to now]. Several of us new ones went outside the hut to have a look. The searchlights were very busy and all the motor buses were stopped, but everything else seemed as usual. We went down to the Strand and all the buildings were on their feet as usual. All the people had disappeared down cellars and tubes. The tubes are anything up to 200 ft below the ground. Just then one of the big searchlights that had been groping around stopped. We couldn’t see anything at it’s end but shells, shrapnel I think, immediately began to burst there, and a felt hat not being much protection we began to think of having a look at the dugout. Just then a bomb dropped about as far as the top of Richmond Rd is from you. The noise was so great that I have no exact recollection of hearing it. I have got a sort of idea that it went from inside my head out , instead of from outside in, as usual. The whole of London shook and the echoes through the streets afterward sounded as if about a dozen blocks of buildings were collapsing. Three other bombs dropped within a few seconds all within about 300 yards of us more or less. The casualties in the city itself were very slight because there are plenty of cellars and tubes and things and therefore practically no people are about. There is a special London motor ambulance service to look after anybody that does get a crack so that novices on foot are not thanked for exposing themselves and interfering. So Trot & I went back to the hut (only about 50 yds) to find the dugout. We found it all right but by that time the strafing seemed finished so we hung about for a while ready to dive in but nothing happened so we went to bed. About half an hour after 14 more bombs were dropped, but none seemed nearer than a mile and the ladies and everyone were still in the dugout and our trousers were cold so we stayed in bed. A peculiar thing about a bomb is that the flash does not seem to to come from the bomb itself, but from the whole area round the bomb like this (diagram) not this (diagram) . The actual flame from the bomb is about the size of Mt Eden upside down. We had a look at the place where the nearest bomb fell next morning. It made a hole in the wood paved street about 8 feet across and 6 feet deep. Here’s a diagram. Every window in both hospitals was smashed and some had their frames blown in as well. Some 2 ft solid colonnades at the entrance to the hospital at A had bits the size of your head chipped out of them. A 5/8″ plate glass window at B facing the Strand was blown in by concussion and there was a nice general mess up everywhere. One of the Tommies told me that some time ago a bomb from a Zepp hit a TNT high explosive dump and every building and lamp post and telegraph post for 1/4 mile was blown absolutely flat. Casualties admitted 100. Casualties actual – censored.” Neil’s account of witnessing another raid, and a comment about air raids in general: “A Fritz plane came over about 3 miles high just a tiny speck way up in the blue and dropped two bombs at a lighthouse about 3/4 of a mile away. The bombs missed by about 1/4 of a mile on the other side so were about a mile from us. Altogether I have been near four active air raids where bombs were dropped and in about 8 other “aircraft over” warnings where nothing was dropped. And that is all of the war I am at all anxious to see.”
We hear a lot about patriotic men who were keen to go to war to fight for their “King and Country”, willing to face the hardships to do their bit. Considering that these three brother all volunteered to serve, I expected this to be the prevailing attitude in their letters. I was surprised to find that they didn’t consider themselves patriotic, and they were also aware of that attitude in those around them. Neil says:
“The Sgt-Major the other day was yarning us about saluting. He explained that when you saluted a commissioned officer it was not the man you were saluting but the authority he held from the King. “In fact”, he went on, “its the King you are saluting”. One hard case chipped in from the back, “well who the ruddy hell is he, anyway. So there’s a bit of what is termed Rafferty rule here all right, but there is a very fair sprinkling of patriotic chaps like myself who waited only about two and a half years.”
And from Vic:
” I notice many of the 23rds in the last casualty lists including some of my own platoon. There are some of the main body here, and they are bitterley disappointed at not getting home for a rest after being led to believe they were, and their opinion of their King and country would not look well on paper.”
“Ah me! One has to live with his fellow man to know him and the Western Front doesn’t exactly bring out the softer side of a man’s nature in spit of the Anzac tosh the “Grannie” deals out so lavishly. The high souled superman is painfully hard to find among those who are cursing the war and hoping for an early return to N.Z.”
They were certainly realists and didn’t see dying for their country as any kind of great honour. At this stage of the war they would have been well aware of the dangers of front-line duty and did not show any kind of enthusiasm for heading into the fighting. Neil wrote:
“The great German offensive which will probably be old news by the time you get this has just commenced; we can feel the shake of the guns here, quite close enough too, I am glad I am not one of the poor devils up in it.”
“You are quite right in assuming that I would not object to being sent home. Nobody here objects to that after they have been over in France for a while.”
Neil, with his typical dry humour:
“You musn’t expect me home before till war ends, or a year later. The only quick way home is to pass thro’ France and get a foot off on the way, and I have decided that while the climate there continues so unhealthy, the longest way round is the safest way home. In fact I have practically made up my mind not to go back to France any more. I am sorry if it means prolonging or losing the war, but it can’t be helped.”
This anti-war frame of mind can also be seen in their (and others) attitudes towards injury or sickness. Vic was seen as very lucky to recieve a wound termed a “Blighty” – an injury that wasn’t life threatening, but bad enough to get him sent back to England (and then eventually home to New Zealand). He wrote:
“When I left I was told my wound was worth £50 to any man. I thought they were stretching it, but I am satisfied now that they were right, as this is a gentleman’s life with the best food in the country and everything that I can possibly want. The only drawback too it is that it wont last long enough, but I will have two weeks leave, with free railway to anywhere, before I go back to camp.”
Recovery from the wound took longer than he expected.
“It will be quite a change to get into Kahaki again. It will be 10 weeks tomorrow since I had a uniform on and I would not mind if it were another ten.”
The threat of being sent back to the front was always imminent, so anything that delayed that was welcome:
“We had a case of measles in our hut last week, so we are all isolated. I am hoping somebody else gets them for we have to be isolated for fourteen days after the last case. I would not mind getting them myself as six weeks in the hospitals would go all right just now.”
Measles was considered a serious disease, and many men died from this disease during the war. However the prospect of sickness safe and warm in a hospital was preferable to heading back into the horrors of the front line.
Norman spent a reasonably long period operating a water cart close to the front line, but eventually got sick with trench fever. He wrote:
“Trench Fever is, according to the doctors, caused by lice. It was not strange that I caught it for I was simply swarming with the pests. I looked on them as pests then but I have since come to regard them as a blessing. although I had a comparatively good time over in France I was never nearer than four miles from the front line and was not overworked.”
Neil is also very vocal on the benefits of sickness and injury. Writing about Vic’s “bad luck” in France, he says:
“He, Gorrie, expects we are in France and wishes us better luck than Vic had. On the whole I think about the same luck would do us.”
Quite early after arriving in France, Neil became quite sick with toncillitus, which got him quickly sent back to England. He writes:
“I dont know how long I will be here, but I am hoping to spend Xmas here. In any case I don’t think I will be back in France before December and possibly not till the New Year. If I should go back and you hear that I have been wounded remember that it will probably be a piece of good luck as it will mean a few months holiday.”
He certainly recognises the good fortune that his sickness has brought him.
“I was medically examined again this morning. He tested my heart, made me do some physical jerks, and then tested it again. The he wrote on my medical sheet, “Heart beats irregularly – sound muffled – short of breath on exertion”. I don’t know whether there is anything in it or not. It may have the effects of keeping me in Blighty a few more weeks. I don’t mind; Torquay would do me for duration.”
And later he writes that:
“I am willing to hold the Torquay front for any period I may be called upon to do so. This is easily the best place I’ve struck on my travels.”
Their negative attitudes towards the war makes one wonder why they volunteered. Since this subject is never broached in their letters, I can only speculate. It would have been a great opportunity for them to see some of the world – though there is no hint from them that they see the war as any kind of adventure. By 1917 they would have seen enough names they recognised on the casualty lists to give them a full knowledge of the danger they were heading into. The social pressure on them would have been enormous, and they may have felt a strong sense of social responsibility to somehow justify the deaths of those who had gone before them. Their personal sacrifice didn’t extend to their loved ones – they were adamant that those still at home should not join them. Their older brother Gorrie had not signed up with the other three, possibly because of health problems. However the conscription ballot (in which the names of men drawn were compelled to sign up) meant that he may have been called up at any time. The brothers kept a close eye on the published lists of ballot results, hoping they wouldn’t see their brothers’ names. Eventually Gorrie did get drawn, but was declined because of a problem with his lungs. On hearing this, Neil writes to him:
“You lucky devil – I’d change lungs and circumstances with you willingly and bear your semi disappointment at having missed the world’s tour. How would you like to be waiting to go up the line before Xmas where the semi frozen mud is up to your -er- hips and where the man with mud only up to his knees is regarded as having a nice cushy job.”
A younger brother, Roy, was 17 when the other three joined up, so was too young to enlist himself as the minimum military age was 20 at that time. He was obviously very keen to join his brothers, and may have had an opportunity to do so as there was talk of lowering the age restriction to 19. This didn’t go down too well with Neil.
“Roy in his high glee concerning the lowering of the age limit deserves to be spanked. Stick a needle in his arm if he feels heroic about France – that will cure him. “
And in another rant about Roy’s enthusiasm for war:
“What does he want to come for! Tell him if he’s thinking of the rights of small nations and all that rot that the Belgians as a rule seem to be regarded as spies until they prove themselves anti German and that the French show their appreciation of “L’entente cordiate” by charging 10 for filling your water bottle. … The ideas Roy has probably got of the treatment of English by the French from reading books like the “Retreat from Mons” will suffer a rude shock when he comes here. There is very little glory left in it now.”
They must have heard many reports of men they knew who had been killed – in fact several of their cousins were killed in action. Vic writes:
“I am sorry to hear that Omaha is having such bad luck. I see names in the lists here, but as I am never sure whether they are those I know.”
In fact they are almost casual about talking about people they know who had been killed, which shows how they had become habituated to hearing about fatalities. The men were very conscious of their own good luck in staying safe and mostly away from the line of fire. After recovering from his illness Neil was promoted to Sergent when he took up a teaching job, which he sees as ironic given he hadn’t seen any real action. He writes:
“It must be very heartening for the poor devils who have spent 2 1/2 years in France to think of the dodgers over here who never have done anything and never seem likely to do anything. But it’s not my fault,- I gave the Colonel particulars of my active service (or rather lack of it) and he didn’t seem to think it all a grave objection; it’s a case of the devil taking the hindmost.”
In another comment about his lack of front line experience, Neil writes:
“It is rather funny to call it trench fever, considering that the only trenches I have been in are those that Bill Massey has his photo taken in – trenches in which the occupants wear soft hats instead of shrapnel helmets.”
Despite (or more likely because of) Vic’s injury and Neil and Norman’s illnesses, it is undeniable that the three men were very lucky to come through the war alive and with very little suffering. Norman recognised this:
“When we come to sum it up the whole three of us have been uncommonly lucky all through the past winter. Never once has any one of us had worse than a wooden floor to sleep on with either a tent or a roof over our heads.”
New Zealand Identity
Another thing that surprised me about the letters is the strong sense of New Zealand as a country with a distinct identity from England. This especially comes through in Norman’s letters. Maybe his long stretch of service in France separated from Neil made him particularly home sick. Some extracts from his letters:
“I sincerely hope that by the time next winter comes we shall all be back home in New Zealand. I have had enough of Europe to last me a lifetime not that we are leading a very hard life here, but “God’s Own Country” is miles out ahead of anything in this part of the world. “
“The winter here is proving milder than the last experienced, but it is quite cold enough, and snow falls every day or so. I don’t think I shall ever say anything against our N.Z. climate when I get back.”
“Tell Mum she need not be afraid of our not being in a hurry to get home after the war is over. The more I see of these other countries the more convinced I become that there is only one country in the world worth living in and the first boat that I can get to brink me back will do me.”
He signed this letter “Kia Ora”, showing that he strongly identified himself as a New Zealander. He also talks about the “Kiwis” of the NZ Divisional theatre. This is a term that only became well used around the time of the first world war, and again shows that the New Zealanders were seen as a distinctive group – not just as an off-shoot of England. I had expected that people of this time would still see England as “Home” – but this isn’t a reference that is ever used by the brothers.
Norman gives his first impressions of England:
“England surprised me in being so much like the pictures you see on almanacs. The barbed wire fence and the wooded houses with sharp corners and galvanised iron roofs are conspicuous by their absence and in their place are the old stone farmhouses with slate roofs and the neat well kept hedges. Everything has the appearance of having been completed for about a century.”
To him this is a strange place, like something out of a picture book.
End of the War
Vic and Norman were already safe at home by November 1918, so Neil is the only to give an account of the end of the war. He says
“The long long trial has just ended. Yesterday at the eleventh hour, of the eleventh day, of the eleventh month (what a thing it is to have a mathematician in the family) Germany turned it in.”
He describes his – not greatly successful – attempts at celebrating:
“I arrived back in camp here, heard peace was declared so about turned and with Harry Reynolds (AGS and AUC) made a bee line [no pass] for the Smoke. In France I had promised Arnold my medical corps teaching, chess friend, that I shd get drunk stunned Peace night whether I was with him or not. But except for beer, the smell of which makes me sick, London had practically dried up, so we had to do our best to get the glad feeling on 3 shilling brandies each that had been saved from the wreck of a little French bar. I was pleased to be in the greatest city in the world on the greatest day of the century, but you have probably had a better account of it in the papers than I could give here.”
And one last word from Neil:
“I’d like to be across the pond singing “Apres la guerre fini” now. The old froggies will be all digging up the cases of champagne that they buried behind the fowl-house out of the way of Fritz.”